Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Art I'm Looking at: Marvelous!—An International Exhibition of Collage, Assemblage, and Construction at The Sebastopol Center for the Arts

Conversations with someone newly met nearly always get around to a question that means "what kind of work do you do?"—even if not worded precisely that way. When I tell people I'm an artist, I always feel a little guilty, because what they really want to know is "how do you make your living?" and it's my "real job" that I live on, not art. Next almost always comes "Oh, what kind of art do you do?" and I cringe inwardly. Then I cringe a little outwardly as I say I'm a "collage artist." I cringe not because of any shame. I cringe because I can see the image that pops into the questioner's mind as I speak: the collage they envision is messy and juvenile and made of torn-up pieces of glossy magazines or it's a mishmash of old magazine ads. To most people, collage is not serious art; collage is something you do in kindergarten with edible glue and scissors with no points. The truth is, a fair amount of collage is messy and juvenile and made of torn-up pieces of glossy magazines, but the Marvelous! show, now on at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, shows finer stuff. Marvelous! comprises more than 100 pieces of collage, assemblage, and construction chosen from over 600 entries (12 countries and as many US states are represented) by jurors Sherry Parker, Cecil Touchon, and John Hundt—accomplished collage artists themselves. None of the chosen works is anything but serious art.

Among the goals of the show's organizers was to suggest that collage, assemblage, and construction form a diverse and vibrant segment of the art world and to point out a recent resurgence of interest in these pursuits among artists around the world. The show is certainly diverse (and it's a challenge writing about such a big show: its scope can only be suggested; inevitably, worthwhile work gets left out). Artists from Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, Turkey, South Africa, South Korea, and Uruguay are represented. Although the majority of the work is collage (both traditional and digital), the show includes free-standing construction, table-top assemblage and construction, and wall-mounted assemblage and construction, as well as pieces harder to characterize: among these are altered books, an electrified mannequin (Spenser Brewer's Tesla Man), and something I personally would call a sculpture that looks rather like an exotic Southeast Asian fruit (shown here—beautiful, however you categorize it). Materials include everything from the detritus of human activity to porcupine quills. It's a large show likely to reward more than one visit.
Above: Octopus Egg, Susan Danis (Albany, CA), purple glass light bulb sockets and terracotta.

Collage (and its three-dimensional siblings assemblage and construction), usually is considered to have been born from the early Cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque (who together coined the term "collage" from the French word coller, meaning "to glue"). Although there are precedents (as far back as Western Han Dynasty China), collage as we know it today is of the 20th century. It is quintessentially modern—both in the sense of being of comparatively recent origin and in the art historical sense of association with Modernism as a movement in art.
Above: River Triptych, Lynn Skordal (Mercer Island, WA), inkjet images, found paper, ribbon, old book covers. 

At the same time, collage artists are a nostalgic bunch; while one school of collagists relies heavily on artist-made materials, another and perhaps the dominant school in terms of numbers of artists at work, seeks to evoke the past or the exotic by using found materials that point to centuries recently past or even to ancient times or by using materials that pre-date the medium itself. Antique stores and junk shops, discarded books illustrated with engravings, Asian calligraphy, and long-defunct magazines are favorite sources of raw materials for these collage artists. When done badly, collage of the nostalgic school looks forced and it relies on fetishizing the past. It is often fussy and busy-looking; it's easy to create chaos and noise with bits of the past. (Even in good work, the fetishizing tendency sometimes sneaks through in the way artists describe their work—taking care to tell us a book cover used is from 1875, for example, or that a bit of photo used is not just from an old magazine but from LIFE magazine, as if age itself or the reputation of the source necessarily transfers merit to the work of art.) When done well, however, collage artists using found materials create plausible new worlds or they project us into imagined pasts that are coherent and seemingly inhabitable or they at least keep their work focused, simple enough on the surface to allow us room to question what these bits of the past might mean in their new context. While the answers to the questions raised are not always clear, at least the questions themselves seem coherent, and the best collage work, whether nostalgic or not, always exhibits a sophisticated sense of composition.
Above: Tesla Man, Spenser Brewer (Redwood Valley, CA), vintage 19th and 20th century parts.

A good example of the nostalgic work in the Marvelous! show is Jane Murphy's Boy, in which a found photo of a young boy has been transformed into a playing card. We see the front of the card, but the lower third of the card seems to simultaneously show a design on the reverse. Below the playing card (which is framed by a pale duck's egg green, a color itself evocative of the past) is a piece of ruled notebook paper with illegible writing and a yellowed cellophane tape stain. Off to the left of the notebook page are scraps of map, other paper, cloth, and labels, that, taken together, look map-like, echoing the bits of actual map. In another echo effect, smudges in the two upper corners of the piece act like numbers in the corners of a playing card. Boy is quiet and contemplative and much more complex than it seems at first—without being busy.
Above: Boy, Jane Murphy (Petaluma, CA), found photo and paper, house paint, and pencil on vintage band card.

Lita Kenyon's Aerodynamics 3 uses an old magazine photograph to evoke a past era. The yellowed fragment of an engineering diagram, too, is evocative of the past, but the collage is at the same time utterly modern, relying as it does on a hard-edged, geometric composition comprising only three elements—a study in simplicity. There are echo effects again; three strong elements in the center of the page divide the sheet into three segments. The diagram fragment, the red shape, and the white space between them form another unit built of three elements. The red, the strip of white at its left, and the flanking triangle of black that encroaches on the photo form another triad. When I say "modern" here, I mean in the art historical sense. But modern art itself is now nostalgic. Modernism was born more than 100 years ago. Modernism is antique.
Above: Aerodynamics 3, Lita Kenyon (Edmonds, WA), mid-century fashion magazine cut-outs, clippings from discarded engineering manuals. 

The absurd forms another strong current in collage, a current that has its source ultimately in Dada and Surrealism. Jenny Honnert Abell's Book Cover No. 115, for example, drops us into a parallel universe where birds have human heads and perch on branches in deep space. An old book cover with stains (that uncannily evoke stars and a spiral galaxy) creates that space while simultaneously drawing our attention to its independent existence as a real-life object—again an object evocative of the past, an old book cover. Collage of what I'm here calling the nostalgic school is particularly good at reminding us that we are looking at artifacts. Lynn Skordal's River Triptych (pictured above) uses book covers to create a triptych that suggests a Christian altarpiece. Religious imagery is evoked not only by the arrangement of the panels but by the glowing light on the hands and their cradling of the image on the central panel in a way that suggests veneration, but where we would expect to see a holy figure, we instead see a dissected head floating over a sun-washed riverscape, with a halo not of light but of smaller heads on pins. River Triptych creates a view into an absurd but plausible world, while exposed edges of the book covers tug as back into the real world at the same time.
Above: Book Cover No. 115, Jenny Honnert Abell (Santa Rosa, CA), boar's hair, glass eye, gouache, collage on book cover.

When collage is in a more abstract vein, it still relies mostly on found paper or cloth—on real-world artifacts. Pieces in the show by Mark Eanes, Louise Forbush, Susan Friedman, and Molly Perez are good examples of this approach. Perez's Throttle, for example, combines ripped paper fragments with pieces of cloth, the paper sometimes blank, sometimes with writing on it, the cloth sometimes plain, like blank canvas, sometimes printed. Perez creates an abstract "painting" with colored paper and cloth as her paints. Cheryl Dawdy's Sunrise, Snowy Field, a small but beautiful piece, is easy to miss but well worth more than a quick look. Here the artist takes the idea of painting with paper in a slightly different direction; Sunrise, Snowy Field is highly abstract, but here collage is used to reference reality directly by picturing a real-life scene, even if the scene depicted may be imagined. Dawdy uses subtly colored paper and tissue to suggest a snow-covered field at dawn, a bank of heavy clouds in the distance.
Above: Throttle, Molly Perez (Healdsburg, CA), mixed media collage on board. Below: Sunrise, Snowy Field, Cheryl Dawdy (Ann Arbor, MI), colored and printed papers, tissue. 

Less common is abstract collage made entirely or mostly from artist-made papers rather than found materials. This type of collage stands in contrast to the nostalgic type. Its approach is more cerebral, focused on composition for its own sake, less reliant on the inevitable associations that attach to artifacts. There is no attempt to evoke another time or place. Collage of this sort creates non-referential abstract spaces that resist dialog with the real world (although human minds stubbornly insist on finding "pictures" in even the purest abstraction). Liliana Zavaleta's Displaced 7 is such a work, constructed as it is from painted papers of the artist's own making—although the title suggests the dark brown form split by the sky-like blue in the upper third is the displaced (or at least interrupted) "7" of the title. Perhaps a clearer example is my own piece in the show, Untitled Collage No. 157, made almost wholly from monotypes I create myself. The work is entirely non-referential.
Above: Untitled Collage No. 157, Colin Talcroft (Santa Rosa, CA), acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, found paper. Below: Displaced 7, Liliana Zavaleta (Milford, NY), mixed media collage on paper.

Diverse as it is, it's hard to say how representative the Marvelous! show is of collage, assemblage, and construction around the world today. The jurors had to pick from among the works submitted for entry. The sample was necessarily skewed toward the US and California simply because the show was best advertised close to home. That said, I noticed comparatively few pieces with any kind of political flavor (only three—the pieces by Serhan Turgut, Judy White, and Sally Briggs), although political commentary has been a prominent aspect of collage historically. The most overtly political piece in the show is by Turkish artist Turgut. In his Fear, we see a black and white photo of a man in a hat. On top of the hat, a workman builds a roof. A crew puts up walls in front of the man's mouth. Below the work crew, large white letters on a red ground spell FEAR. I noticed also that collage, assemblage, and construction appears to be a segment of the art world where women are conspicuously active. Of the 102 artists represented, 73 are women.
Above: Fear, Serhan Turgut (Ankara, Turkey), paper, collage.

There is not enough room to mention all the other interesting work in Marvelous! (although I especially liked the pieces by Olga Lupi, Barbara Wildenboer, Carol Dalton, Janet Jones, Koji Nagai, Peter Dowker, Deborah Salomon, Katie McCann, Antonia Rehnen, Rafael Bottino Pirez, Pål Misje, Michael Waraksa, Cynthia Collier, and Jef Arnold, among others—so many others). I've tried to give a sense of the diversity just within a small selection of the collage works presented, barely touching on the assemblage and construction in the show (with notable pieces by local artists Cat Kaufman and Rebecca Trevino), or on the altered books, or any of the pieces from the world of digital collage. Suffice it to say that the organizers have succeeded in bringing together a diverse body of high-quality work that achieves the goal of highlighting the creativity of artists working in collage, assemblage, and construction today. Highly recommended.
Above: Farewell, Antonia Rehnen (Groningen, the Netherlands), polymer print, collage. Below: Cutters, Peter Dowker (Lac Brome, Quebec, Canada), vintage papers, acrylic medium, collage.

Showing simultaneously at The Sebastopol Center for the Arts are Reflections Within—The Reliquary Series, a show of assemblage pieces by Valerie L. Winslow, in Gallery II, and Stranger Than Fiction, a show of exquisite collage work by two of the Marvelous! jurors, Sherry Parker and John Hundt, in Gallery III. Both shows deserve reviews of their own. In addition, two workshops associated with the Marvelous! show are planned. Cat Kaufman will lead an Assemblage Play Workshop on Saturday, January 28 from 10:00AM to 3:00PM. Jenny Honnert Abell will host a Wacky Portrait Collage Workshop for kids Sunday, January 22 from 1:30PM to 3:30PM.
Above: Mission Improbable, Sherry Parker, mixed media collage.

Marvelous!—An International Exhibition of Collage, Assemblage, and Construction is on view at The Sebastopol Center for the Arts, 252 S. High Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472 (707 829-4797) through February 12, 2017. Admission free. Tuesday through Friday 10:00AM–4:00PM, Saturday and Sunday 10:00AM–4:00PM. Closed Mondays.


  1. Art is not a joke. Where some people are assemblagists they may not be 'Assemblage Artists' . I do like Jane's BOY and Lynn's Triptych I am not that impressed with much of what's here. I see you failed to mention Tesla Man by Spencer Brewer which I though fantastic although not altogether an Assemblage he does accomplish a very well though work. Because there are so many good artists that do assemblage I am somewhat taken aback.

    1. I'm afraid I don't understand. Who said art was a joke? I did mention Tesla Man in passing. Taken aback by what?

    2. I've added a photo of Tesla Man, too. :)


Related Posts with Thumbnails